Sunday, December 1, 2013

Frozen

2013, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee -- in theatre

I've been quite negligent and equally tardy in my movie reviewing, with a backlog of 12 titles sitting in my "to review" list.  The list stretches back to August and my wedding anniversary, where the wifey and I went to see the final installment of the Cornetto Trilogy, The World's End.  So, two things: 1) I need to catch up on my movie reviewing, 2) I probably need to watch more movies if I've only seen 12 in the past ... (August, September, October, November...1,2,3...)... four months...well really more 3 months since The World's End was at the end of August, but still that's at best four movies a month, only one movie a week. Of course, that's not counting the endlessly repeated kids movies or things that I pay next to no attention to (the less said about "My Little Pony: Equestria Girls" the better).

Which (kind of) leads me to Disney's return to their "musical princess fantasy" milieu, where they were so comfortable and so successful in the 1990's.  Working from the latest film I've seen backwards to The World's End (like "Coundown to The World's End"?), Frozen is based (very) loosely off the Hans Christian Anderson fable, The Snow Queen, so, as is tradition in the House That Mickey Built, a classic children's story is repurposed into a more modern romantic adventure set piece with quirky sidekicks and plenty of singing.

I'm not a fan of "Disney Princesses", the marketing gimmick, as it brands characters outside of their storytelling context, and removes any sense of their strength of character, instead devolving them into pretty dresses and dress-up jewelry.  But at the same time, I'm not fond of most of the princesses in the Disney films themselves.  They're usually reactionary creatures, love-struck and in need of rescue, or action-adjacent.  I was really hoping Brave would be a more positive, tough princess added to the Disney pantheon, alas, she turned out to be a spoiled brat who learned nothing after turning her mother into a bear.  An element of Brave is resolving the mother-daughter conflict, and it's an important story, but Brave does not handle it very well.  Frozen, on the other hand, is about unintended conflict between siblings, with both sisters front and center in the story, and any romantic elements being asides to the central aspect of the bond of family.

The commercials for Frozen have not played up the fact that the film is indeed a Disney musical (so not a full-on musical, but characters are breaking into songs throughout) and the centerpiece of the commercials has been to sell the slapstick sidekicks -- the snowman, Olaf, and the reindeer Sven -- more than any of the human characters, or to even really infer what the story is.  The comic relief characters, a classic element since Shakespeare's day, are an expected staple of these types of things.  Olaf is truly a useless character in the grandest sense that he serves no story purpose other than comic relief.  Sven on the other hand is a beast of burden in the film, so at least he serves a purpose, but as well being Kristoff's best friend is punctuation on how socially isolated this man is.  The music is not what I'd call classic, but mercifully it's original and not yet another digitally animated film that's taking classic rock or modern hits and reusing them as in-story song-and-dance numbers.  The cast, beyond Kristen Bell as Anna (can she really sing like that?  I'm impressed if that's actually her) is comprised of stage performers, Broadway stars and Tony winners, it's a marked difference from the usual celebrity-studded kid flicks.

[Spoilers]

But beyond that, it's got a good story featuring interesting characters, complex emotions and more than a bit of princess genre-busting.  It begins with the sisters Anna and Elsa as little girls.  The elder sibling Elsa has fantastical powers which allow her to create ice and snow, which her younger sibling likes to take advantage of in the grand foyer of their Danish castle home.  But an accident while using her powers threatens Anna's life, and a mad dash to the Troll people saves her but requires the removal of all of Anna's memories of Elsa's powers, and Elsa sheltering herself lest she lose control of her ever-strengthening powers and harm someone.  As they age into early adulthood (in a musical montage showcasing Anna's rather desperate disappointment in her sister's isolation, and Elsa's increasing fear of herself) they lose their parents and ultimately it comes time for Elsa to be crowned queen.

They open their gates for the first time in years to the outside world, and the masses (part curious, and part reveling) come to celebrate her coronation.  But what Elsa fears the most, losing control, naturally comes to pass when Anna, desperate for social contact and love, meets Hans, a neighboring prince who seems absolutely perfect for her and proposes marriage.  With her powers erupting, Elsa sets the village into perpetual winter and flees into the fjords before she harms anyone, where she finally lets loose, revealing she can create buildings, bridges and clothing out of ice and snow, and even bring snow people to life (not just life, but full cognition).  Anna sets out after her, meeting ice farmer Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and the summer-loving snowman Olaf along the way.

By this point I had already expected a love triangle between Elsa, Anna and Hans, a sibling rivalry between Elsa and Anna that would see Elsa turn into a wicked witch-type figure (similar to Oz: the Great and Powerful earlier this year), and another love triangle between Anna, Hans and Kristoff.  None of these actually came to pass, but the language of these types of movies naturally has us expecting those types of shenanigans that almost any deviation is a welcome one.

The climax of the film holds true to what came before, though once again leading us to expect the conventional and mercifully denying us that.  The climax of the film finds Elsa in chains and Anna near death with the only thing to save her an act of true love.  The expectation is that it will be Hans or Kristoff providing such an act, or even possibly Elsa saving her sister, but it's actually Anna who saves herself, and it's rather glorious.  The men in the story are love interests, sure, but they take more of the princess role that Disney films of not-that-old would find Jasmine or Ariel in.  It's still a princess movie, with plenty of dress adoration to go around (the Danish influence on the costuming and art design is wonderful) but it doesn't stop there with these characters.  It allows them a full range of complex emotions and moments of valiant heroism, basically more of what I wanted out of Brave, but welcome it here.

Frozen is a good movie with the potential to tell a great story.  The film glosses over Elsa and Anna's childhood and teenage years as their once tight bond dwindles and we never actually feel the true impact of their separation, and their isolation.  As this section is glossed over in song, we receive lyrical resonance, but it doesn't satisfactorily convey the overwhelming disappointment Anna feels or any further complexity beyond that, nor does it effectively capture how Elsa feels beyond fear (I suspect sadness and depression would be darker impulses).  A novelization of the story, expanding on these aspect (and eliminating the completely peripheral Olaf altogether) would be most welcome.

A definite winner, and I think an easy favourite in the Disney princess repertoire (Elsa and Anna come second and third only to Princess Leia in the Disney Princess department).